Originally created 07/18/02

Court goes overboard

For many years, Georgia's boat safety laws were remarkably lax and basically unenforced. The maximum violation for reckless and drunken boating was a misdemeanor; the severest penalty, a slap on the wrist. Even a fatality could draw no more than a two-year term.

In the early '90s, following a spate of inexcusable boating accidents, including a double fatality on Lake Lanier, all that changed. This newspaper led the call for more vigilant lake patrols and stiffer waterway laws, modeled on highway laws.

That legislation passed in 1995. Since then, seriously bad boaters can be prosecuted for a felony, not just a misdemeanor, and face up to 15 years in prison if they're responsible for a fatality.

But now Georgia has gone from unreasonably lax boating laws to just plain unreasonable - unfortunately, with the blessing of the state Supreme Court.

The high court ruled this week that it's legal for lake patrols to stop boats to check for safety violations - even when there's no cause to do so.

In other words, if the boat is being safely operated - no sign of drunkenness, recklessness or carelessness - police can still stop it, climb aboard and prowl about. What's next? Are we headed toward Minority Report, the popular Tom Cruise movie where police arrest the "criminal" before he commits the crime.

The problem with the draconian boating policy is that, while trying to ensure Georgians are safe on the waterways, it creates the potential for abuse of police power - a greater threat to the public good. At a minimum, it's an invasion of privacy.

Highway police can't stop cars for no reason. Boat patrols should be held to the same standard. Nail the careless, the reckless, the dangerous - but leave safe sailors alone. Someday maybe the high court will take another look at its ruling which won't be long in coming if police go overboard with their new power.

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